A victim of circumstance: a grandfather’s story of 23 years without his family

Pamela Gonos the family history enthusiast now understands why it took her grandfather twenty five years to bring his son to Australia from Greece. Gonos knew nothing about her grandfather, Spiridon Gonos.

“He was a complete enigma to me. Why he came [to Australia]? Why he stayed? Why he didn’t go back?” Gonos had many questions.

She says that her grandfather,”got stuck in Australia and he could not get back and then World War II broke out.”

Gonos wanted to know about him “and his motives.”

Her book, Two Bold Men and The Women They Left Behind: The Life and Times of Hercules Alexiades and Spiridon Gonos, helped her discover the reasons why her grandfather never returned to Greece, and why it took so long for him to bring out his son and her father, Bill. Her grandfather and great-uncle were always interconnected and lived parallel lives.

They both migrated to Broken Hill, lived together, supported each other, married sisters and their sons opened a milk bar in Broken Hill, she said.

Gonos said her father Bill and George Alexiades opened Johnny’s Snack Bar, in Argent St, Broken Hill, in 1957.

The shop was open eighteen hours a day from 7am to 1am and the pair did alternating nine-hour shifts.

They catered to miners, and ” worked 364 days of the year with Christmas Day the only day off. ” she said.

A copy of Spiros Gonos’s “Alien registration” form renewal, 1939. Photo: Supplied

Gonos said after her father died in 1980 the store was sold and George Alexiades moved to Melbourne. She says in her book that George Alexiades lamented his father Hercules’s decision to bring the family to Australia.

Gonos said George ran a successful fruit shop in Athens, and felt forced to come Australia. He was angry with his father Hercules for not obeying his own wealthy merchant father’s order to go back to a crumbling Constantinople and salvage the Alexiades’s family fortune.

Gonos also interviewed her 86-year-old mother and recorded her on her mobile phone as the pair sat socially-distanced, on her mother’s verandah, during the 2021 COVID lockdowns in NSW. Hercules Alexiades’s descendants and Gonos’s cousins provided letters, photographs and oral histories.

Two Bold Men and the Women they left Behind is also about how the brothers-in-law married sisters Olga and Magdalene Ikonomou. Gonos’s grandfather arrived in Australia in 1928 after Hercules, who landed in1925 to settle in Broken Hill.

Gonos says the wives’ stories are fascinating.

Reunited at last. Bill Gonos(left) sits next to his father, Spiro, in 1951 after 23 years apart. Hercules Alexiades in on the far right. Photo: Supplied

“The women are the real heroes, they are the ones that were left behind and it was a tough, brutal time.””Gonos said.

The wives were illiterate, had a tough life living with their in-laws, it was unclear if the men ever sent money back to them and the children. Worse the women endured the horror of the Germans. The Nazis destroying their village in 1944 during World War II and took their sons as POWs.

It took her grandfather Spiro 23 years to bring his son, who was to become her father, Bill, to Australia, in 1951. That was bitter-sweet event. The reunion was short-lived as Spiros Gonos died within six months of reuniting with his son. He died without ever seeing his wife and two daughters again. His wife, Olga, migrated to Australia in 1953, one year after his death.

Gonos’ grandfather worked in Broken Hill, and did not apply for citizenship until 1940 when he was 60 years old. While his citizenship application was being processed, his Greek passport was confiscated and sent to Sydney meaning he couldn’t travel overseas. Her grandfather Spiros Gonos remained as a “registered Alien” until 1949, a precarious situation that meant he couldn’t return to Greece, claim welfare and health care benefits, or bring his family to Australia.

Hercules started bring out his family to Australia from 1948, his wife and daughter first. Unlike his brother-in-law, Spiros , Hercules enjoyed a life with his family dying 77years old, in 1970.

Family history enthusiast, Pamela Gonos, wrote two books on her grandparents’ and father’s life. Photo: Supplied

Gonos found out more about her great-uncle Hercules than her own grandfather when researching for her book.

“I found out why he my grandfather couldn’t go back to Greece, he waited too long to apply for an Australian citizenship at 60.” she said.

At 60, the authorities expected aliens to have lived in Australia for 20 years.

“He could have applied with Hercules, …but I understand he was a victim of circumstance, he got stuck here,” Gonos said

Her grandfather came out to Australia just before the Great Depression, didn’t work for two to three years, got into debt, had to repay his debts and then World War II broke out.

Gonos’ research showed that, her grandfather was a “sweet-natured man”, there were “no rumours” about his life in Australia and he was not out here for an adventure.

In her book, Ms Gonos put it this way: “Hercules’s son George would say to his eldest son Jim that the folly of his father in not going back to Constantinople would wipe out the gains of the first generation and curse future generations to living as migrants.”

The 74-page book has been well researched and includes sources from the National Library of Australia. It contains ship passengers lists, naturalisation papers, Australian government reports, Alien Registration renewal forms – complete with her grandfather’s fingerprints – and material from books like Christine Adams, Sharing the Lode:The Broken Hill Migrant Story, Broken Hill Migrant Heritage Committee, and Handbook for Travellers in Constantinople, Brusa and the Troad, published by John Murray in 1900. In a100-year commemoration of the fall of Asia Minor, Gonos includes a quote from Murray where he talks about the Greek, Armenian and Bulgarian merchants and the cosmopolitan nature of Constantinople. “Eight or nine languages are constantly spoken in the streets… These races have nothing to unite them, no relations, except those of trade, with one another; everybody lives in a perpetual vague dread of everyone else;…”

Gonos,56, is an optometrist with two adult children was born and raised in Broken Hill, NSW. Her father Bill Gonos died in 1980 and the family relocated to Sydney.

Two Bold Men… is her second self-published book. And is a sequel to her The Destruction of Stavroskiathi and the Capture of its Sons 9 June 1944, published in 2021. Her first book looks at Hercules’s and Spiros’s sons who remained in Greece and became German prisoners of war (POW). While Spiros and great-uncle Hercules were stuck in Australia, unbeknown to them, Spiros Gonos’s son and Panela Gonos’s father, Vasili and Hercules Alexiades’s sons Harilaos and George were forcibly removed from their village Stavroskiathi, in Epirus, when the Nazis destroyed the village on June 9, 1944. The three cousins remained German POWs until the end of the war, in April 1945. Themes of money, Epirus, and two men run through Gonos’s story.

Gonos recommended Greek-Australians research their family histories,”For me it’s been an invaluable experience.”

“I feel like that part of me that was missing, the questions have been answered.”

For copies of Two Bold Men and The Women They Left Behind – The Life and Times of Hercules Alexiades and Spiridon Gonos and The Destruction of Stavroskiathi and the Capture of its Sons 9 June 1944 contact Ms Gonos, via e-mail, at pamelagonos@gmail.com